Alexander Ooms argues that a controversy around school grades in Indiana has lessons for education reform more generally.
The story that former Indiana Superintendent and current Florida education commissioner Tony Bennett may have intervened to either correct or alter the accountability grade of a school with close ties to a political donor is this week’s slow news Rorschach test – people generally see what they want. The immediate responses have been unfortunately predictable: the anti-reform crowd claims it proves their conspiracy theories on GOP donors; the reform crowd (many of whom are personal friends of Bennett) rush in to defend him primarily on character. Fighters, to your corners, and come out swinging.
But there are issues here that have nothing to do with Bennett. A long time ago I had the benefit of a brief internship with the ACLU, where I spent some time with chief legal counsel Art Spitzer. One of the lessons he impressed on me was a simple test: flip both the speaker and subject of any conversation to its opposite, and see if your opinion is the same. If it is, you have an argument on principle. If not, you don’t.
So here is an exercise: recall your initial reaction on the Bennett controversy. Now imagine that the headline instead read “Democratic Superintendent Improves Grade for Union Donor’s School.” Is your reaction the same? Does the theory on money or character still hold true? For this has to be about principle and not personality. Most of the debate is conjecture. The emails on which the initial news story was based (obtained under a FOIA request) have been published, and are worth reading. But let’s stop making this a referendum on either Bennett’s person or political party and see if there is anything we might learn.
Several things come to light:
1. No Black Boxes: School accountability systems must be fully transparent: the metrics and their weights should be published and based on public data so that outsiders can do the calculation themselves. The primary question here is if Bennett and his staff were correcting a formula or changing it. The way to answer that question is for the formula to be known and available in advance — there should be no black boxes of accountability. This does not mean that individuals have to be able to calculate median growth percentiles, but that systems should link to the primary data source and explain how much it counts in their algorithm. Too few states and districts do this (including Denver), and Indiana apparently did not. Having a public and open record of the accountability system would make it easy to tell if this was a correction or a change.
2. Be harder on your friends. The reform movement is not well-served by the rush to defend Bennett on character. Several reformers have proclaimed that Bennett is due the presumption of innocence. But this is the standard for criminal behavior, not for the public interest. The interest of students outweigh the dents to the reputations of public officials, and I for one believe these interests are better served by a press corps who dig into the appearance of impropriety, regardless of its source (and the emails make it clear that the digging was justified). Reformers who have long argued for firm accountability standards should be the ones asking Bennett the toughest possible questions, not tossing fat whiffleballs (and yes, this is one reason I am highly critical of DPS despite my personal admiration for their leadership team). Ask hard questions, examine the data, and see where it takes you.
3. Politics is an impure arena. Indiana’s superintendent is an elected position, and as such is subject to the messy conventions of politics. Assuming the case where Bennett only fixed a formula error, there is still a pretty clear case from the emails that a political donor had privileged access and attention. Now this is politics, and not illegal. But for years reformers have argued that the current system is too often adults protecting the interests of other adults, and that access and influence is too easily bought by union political money. So if the speaker and subject is flipped here, they need to speak out on principle as well.
Nietzsche wrote “He who fights with monsters must take care lest he thereby become a monster.” I doubt very seriously that Bennett is a monster, and I think there is a decent chance that this will indeed turn out to be a correction and not a change. But I think the lesson for people interested in improving the public education system is clear, and we need to look make sure our teeth are not turning to fangs. The debate needs to be centered on principles, where ever the chips finally fall.